Adventure Report, Personal

Dreaming of dirt from the darkside…

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So tired tonight… and in pain. My knee is throbbing, my feet are cold and my leg is itching from wearing a compression stocking that makes my thigh look like a stuffed sausage. I just finished my first attempt at a gym workout since ACL surgery last Monday; but instead of hearing the buzz of a cheering audience or Chariots of Fire in the back of my head, I’m merely trying to keep my stomach attached to the inside of my ribs and stop the room from spinning. Lack of calories and a naturally low blood pressure can have wild consequences under the right kind of environmental stress, and unfortunately for me, my body was letting me know that perhaps my ambitious need to improve my physical state of mobility might have been more successful had I taken the time to digest some solid food. Nonetheless, I worked through an initial set of exercises, and though not as quickly as I imagined, my healing is moving forward. In this, there is much to be thankful for…

Three years ago I opted for an ACL revision to fix a cadaver graft and meniscus injury – not more than six months later, I had torn the graft yet again, and decided to opt out of surgery and see how long I could go without an ACL. Consequently, it wasn’t too long before the injuries began compounding, and fast forward to 2015; I finally scheduled an overdue solution and opted for a new graft, this time, harvesting from my patellar ligament to ensure a stronger, longer outcome. The problem is, going under the knife is no easy decision, and as I’ve “been there done that” on too many prior occasions, I knew I would be looking at a drawn out recovery process. However, measuring the benefits against the risks, and the patience it would take to heal, I believe I made the right choice.

For the last three years, I’ve been prone to knee dislocations, soft tissue tears, and joint inflammation. There simply wasn’t any room for error. Downhill “racing” and jumps became detrimental. If I missed a transition due to lack of timing or poor judgment in speed, my knee would dislocate upon the landing. More than once, this has caused me significant pain and long bouts out of the saddle. Sadly, my confidence waning and my knee simply giving out with a mere squatting motion, I quit riding my beloved playground, Black Rock, altogether, last February. Since then, I’ve had to slow down on climbing – my typical style is to mash the pedals, and my knee let me know this simply wasn’t acceptable. When I switched to higher RPMs, my back gave out. And though I had fun “racing” Crawfish Classic this summer, my speed wasn’t anywhere near where it was even a year ago. The muffin top had become a permanent fixture, and riding became even more painful as my cardio fitness took a dive. In September, I finally jumped in and scheduled my orthopedic consultation – I would spend the holidays learning how to walk again.

A biker chick’s legs… the good, the bad and the ugly.

So as the surgery date became more apparent, I began to feel the anxiety grow… how long would this really take to heal? I became a fervent researcher in ACL recovery and cycling athletes. To be honest, there really isn’t a whole lot out there for competitive mountain biking, much less downhill or freeride enthusiasts. Asking my doctor, he seemed to have some idea about when I would be able to get on a road bike, but “off road cycling” would have to play it by ear a bit longer. Then there’s all my amazing friends who also happen to be professional athletes – some of whom recently broke their femurs (yep, there’s more than one of you) and a few more having had ACL reconstructive surgeries in the last couple years – they’re all doing great; but I am a small business owner, a mom, a “wife” (of sorts) and while mountain biking is definitely at the top of my list of priorities, it isn’t the only priority in my life, and someone has to pay the bills. This doesn’t leave me with hours on end to focus on physical training and riding bicycles every day. So how long would it really take for me to heal to my desired level of athletic performance? After a long trifle of personal interviews, medical consultations and scouring the internet for relevant information, I have come to the conclusion that my next “racing career” (period of time when I will prioritize my competitive performance as a mountain biker) will begin now, with the goal to seriously hit the race circuit by May 2017. Eighteen months of rehab, training, building my strength, endurance, mental capacity and habits (the most important key here…) that will help me reach success in my desire to excel at the sport of mountain biking.

That being said, six months before I can ride dirt again seems far off, for now. But I know all too well; time ticks onward, and it waits for no one. So, while my garden needed tending, my house needed cleaning and the paperwork on my desk continued to accumulate, I spent the last month, before undergoing the knife, on dirt, with friends and family.

Sandy Ridge Riders
Our No Apologies! Sandy Ridge Birthday Bash, featuring some of the best NWTA lady rippers Portland has to offer! Left to right: Rheannon, Hazel, Sarah, Kerstin, Elaine, Michelle, Gwyn and Debbie.

No Apologies! kicked off the party with an impromptu birthday ride in late October at Sandy Ridge. Wasting no time, I re-posted the event to the Northwest Trail Alliance Women’s Group. After all, who could resist celebrating at least three birthdays, including Sarah, Kerstin and myself. It turned out to be an amazing day in both weather and company. Some of my favorite adventure ride partners showed up to share the glory, and we worked every bit of the trail system we had time to put two wheels to; rock gardens, drops, big corners and off-camber rooted switchbacks – Sandy has it all. Following the more experienced riders, we tested our skills, raised our confidence and built a whole new coalition of camaraderie. At the end of the day, we left the scene on very satisfying terms; after all, what could be better than a shredfest of beautiful, strong, confident women… and cupcakes.

Sandy Ridge Cupcake Fest
Do cupcakes really need a caption? We rode, they were there, we were hungry, and we ate them… nice way to end the ride! Below photo credit: Terry Causey

Breaking away from the travels up north, I also took some time to hit a few areas closer to home. I took a day to ride Carpenter’s Bypass (lovingly referred to as Whypass, by Eugene-local IMBA chapter, Disciples of Dirt) with my sweetie Matt. Whypass is a chaotic network of trails loosely following a “figure eight” structure around a main road. The trick to finding your way around is to remember which side of the road you’re on. However, the goods are worth a few minutes of confusion; twisting descents through a myriad of forest habitats, wide open viewpoints and multiple opportunities to “choose your line” make Whypass the perfect venue for anyone, at any skills level. What I love is that there really isn’t any extended time in the saddle spent climbing or going downhill – Whypass offers a balanced option for the classic cross country mountain biking experience, and makes for the perfect outdoor “gym” for those who are trying to build up their fitness. Blue skies, tabletop sessioning, and pedaling at a steady, even, pace gave me hope my cardio wasn’t as bad off as I thought.

A typical sunny view at Whypass, because, why pass up a good view?

But then I hit the North Shore Trail (or perhaps I should I say it “spanked” me) just outside Lowell off Highway 58 heading east from Eugene. A rolling river trail, North Shore boasts plenty of challenges to test both endurance and strength. You must be comfortable with constant elevation change – just when you think you can’t pedal up any longer, you’ll be pointing straight down again, right through the middle of a rock garden or a pile of roots with a sharp left turn and a creek crossing ending in a gear-thrusting grind up to the next surprise. A mere 12-mile out and back can become a technical nightmare quickly, especially when (like me) your back tire loses traction across a slimy, unkempt bridge and you’re thrown out of the saddle as your bike dives into the creek you thought you were avoiding by riding the bridge in the first place! Oh yeah, it made for a sore hip and a wet, squishy, shoe, but I persevered. While it continued to rain most of the day, I barely noticed, as I found myself chasing my friend Aimee on her single speed – and for her, single speed means just that; one speed; which is FAST. Needless to say, I didn’t get cold, and there was no dilly-dallying the ride “back to the barn”. We enjoyed an invigorating workout, followed by rainbows, tacos, hot tub and steam. I love riding with women. We know how to see it through – beginning to end, and we don’t have to feel guilty about spoiling ourselves!

North Shore Cruise
Above: This is the classic re-group spot along the reservoir at the North Shore campground. The trees to the left represent the climb out to the last section of trail before the turn around. Although it was a blustery day, most of our ride was protected beneath these canopies.  Photo credit: Carrie Russo
North Shore Team
Me, Carrie and Aimee; wet, happy and ready to eat tacos! Photo credit: Justin Turlak

A good mountain bike tribute in the fall wouldn’t be complete without combining a mushroom hunt into the mix. So I borrowed an extra bike and convinced my friend Angela to join Matt and I for a ride/foray on Larison Creek trail. Located just outside Oakridge off Diamond Drive and east on NF 21, Larison Creek trail is accessed off the west cove of Hills Creek, also known as Larison Cove. Poor Angela. My bike, though a size small, was still a bit too large for her tiny 5’ frame. Coming to a full stop left her unbalanced as she tried to dismount to size up a line, and unfortunately, she took a short topple off the edge of the trail. It was slow motion – three (yes three) endos into the brush. I raced back up trail to make certain she was alright, offering a hand, but she is stubborn, and declined my help, insisting she just needed to catch her breath. After walking down the descent, she was back on it, determined not to go home empty-handed. We culled through our “spots” without much luck, finding enough hedgehogs and chanterelles for dinner, but not much more. So we rode a bit further before turning back. That’s when Angela took off like a banshee… had all the coaching on the way out gotten through already? Suddenly, Angela was naturally shifting her body through the descents, facing roots, rocks, and small drops with ease. This was exactly what I had imagined for her – and I was so happy to finally share my favorite pastime with one of my oldest and dearest friends. Definitely a highlight before going into surgery!

Larison Creek Angela
Angela gets on her serious face as she approaches a small root drop. Nothing like a successful day of coaching and mushroom hunting to round out a “walk down the plank” to knee surgery!

The “piece de resistance” came the last weekend, just before I dove into the black hole of pain, scar tissue, and torture (uh, I mean, physical therapy). It just so happened that I was to drive Matt’s daughter to the Portland Airport for an early morning Saturday departure, so I decided to take one last opportunity to ride the north side of the state in unexplored territory. I put the word on Facebook at the last minute on Thursday, drove up Friday, and spent the night in Vancouver, at my friend Bridget’s place (also my No Apologies! teammate). Following a brisk delivery to Southwest Airlines, Bridget, myself and about a dozen of my PDX-based riding partners met at the base of Thrillium – a well-known downhill trail outside of Camas, off Hwy. 500 in the Columbia Gorge, on the Washington side.

Thrillium Ladies Ride
The ladies of NWTA pair up with No Apologies! once again to hit the Cold Creek area. Getting ready to ride Thrillium, left to right: Elaine, Michelle, Jocelyn, Debbie, Karolyn, Bridget and Inga. Big thanks to our awesome cache of gentleman riders who patiently guided us down trail, took our pictures and helped us shuttle! Photo credit: Todd McCarthy

To be honest, I was completely overwhelmed by the response of so many friends who came out to ride with me. On top of it all, two of the ladies in attendance were also celebrating their birthdays. While they could have chosen to spend the day at any number of other engagements, these folks came out to share the sunshine and the shred, with me! And what a fantastic day! We gathered our gear and bikes up between four vehicles and carpooled to the top of Thrillium for a couple of runs. The trail started out with an abrupt, vertical drop-in. Not knowing exactly what to expect, I decided to let it all go –fear, anxiety, worry about falling… all gone. I jumped in full throttle, chasing Oregon Enduro Cup series champ, Elaine Bothe to the next regroup spot. What a rush… rocky chutes and fast, steep corners, skinny passages between trees, root drops and a swift left turn before we piled out onto the road crossing. The next couple segments took us down a frozen wonderland of freestyle jumps, berms, step-ups and tabletops with hangtime for what seemed like miles. In fact, I think I probably caught my biggest air ever on the second run down. Chainless, I let off the break and launched a big tabletop, dumb-stricken during hangtime, thinking to myself “oh my god, I am flying… I’m way off the ground… my head is in the clouds…” and then, suddenly back on two wheels again, I finished out the segment with a greater sense of euphoria than I’d ever imagined possible while riding a bike. After our second run, it was getting near noon, so we retrieved vehicles from the top, shared cupcakes and exchanged goodwill before everyone went separate ways. Bridget, Inga, Jason and I decided to pedal up to the top of Cold Creek, making one last decent on the wild side of the hill before we called it a day.

Cupcake MTB
Because what goes together better than cupcakes and mountain biking?
Cold Creek Snow Field
A chilly opening into a lightly blanketed meadow on Cold Creek trail.

While Thrillium shuttles are fun as hell, Cold Creek offered us a sense of adventure from a different perspective. First, there was the climb. A steep gravel pedal to the top of a power line road left my legs feeling like rubberbands that had been stretched too far. Legs shaking, I downed a REV’D bar and a couple of gels to try and get some motivation back in my muscles. The decent started out smoothly enough, but gave way to rock gardens and an open beargrass meadow delightfully dusted in snow. Skinny, exposed trails led to a sketchy shale ridgeline, requiring just enough speed to clear the last corner into a protected trail bed, but it was tricky. Too much brake or speed would have seen the novice attempt battered in bruises. But we all rode it with grace. Next up, I took a good spill shooting around a corner down a narrow channel of rocks, but I quickly recovered and tried to catch Jason, launching whatever booters I could find along the way. My confidence was soaring and by far, this was one of my best days out the entire season. We cleaned a couple of bigger drops along the way, and once again chainless toward the bottom of the last segment, I let out the throttle, pumping and jumping my way to the end of the line. Truly an amazing day, I left Inga and Jason with a couple extra cupcakes and drove Bridget home. Now it was time to head back to Eugene and face the music…

Cold Creek Cornering
Heading out of one section, into the next – bonus view of Mt. Hood in the background. Photo credit: Inga Beck

But not so fast! My band of “Merry Bikesters” would not settle for me spending my last day of mobility taking care of yardwork. Oh no, the blitz to bike my ass off before surgery was on, so Matt and I prepared for an early morning departure with our friend Carrie, hoping to squeeze one more shred session into our Sunday repertoire at Alsea Falls, a mountain-bike specific flow trail system located northwest of Eugene following Hwy. 99 barely past Monroe to a cutoff road toward Alpine and out toward the Alsea coast. The Alsea Falls Flow Trail has fast become my favorite go-to place to ride, in part because it’s only 40 minutes away from my front door, but also because it’s just plain fun. I can’t think of a time I’ve been there to ride bikes and haven’t seen everyone in my pack drive off with ear-to-ear grins.  After a warm-up climb for about three miles – four, if you want to ride the top segments (and the extra mile is worth it, even if it’s a grunt) you’re in for the proverbial action-packed rollercoaster of mountain bike parks! From swift vertical descents littered with technical challenges, to smooth high-speed corners and sideways berms, tabletops, doubles and pump track sessioning to fast switchbacks, pedally root sections and grumpy little rock garden climbs, Alsea has something for everyone.

Alsea Crew
Ah, the homies! Showin’ some love in the chilly morning hours on Saturday. Left to right: Aimee, Michelle, Matt, Carrie, Julia and Eriel.

Upon arrival, we were pleasantly surprised to see our friends, Julia and Eriel, in the parking area, and just before we took off for the climb, Aimee showed up as well. Matt was our token man for the day, but he held out like a champ, patiently photographing our silly group portraits and attempts to session the big tabletop at the end of the central trail section, known as “Lower Highballer”. We had so much fun chasing each other, and in the end, I became chainless again, and somehow losing all inhibition, I transformed into the speed of light by pumping everything possible. My adrenaline kicked in as I felt my body loosening up and I became the hero I always wanted to be, jumping each and every double, landing perfect transitions and sliding into home base at the hoots and hollers of my companions. Another great ride in the books just before surgery, and little did I know or understand how much these experiences would mean to me after I would essentially lose mobility as I knew it, for at least six months.

Alsea Jumpin Jack Flash
Michelle “pop-a-launches” while Aimee sails through the transition. Photo credit: Matt McPharlin

Fast forward to now. It’s Monday, and a week after the surgery and those last few adventures that left me hopeful, inspired and determined to heal, no matter how bad the pain would get. And it’s gotten bad. The Tuesday after the nerve block wore off was the worst, as I lay crying out between the tears trickling down my face, my leg being manipulated into an excruciating state of flexion. These are the moments I hide from almost everyone, as I attempt to put on a happy face and focus forward on my goals, but real, nonetheless, and part of the recovery process… and hell, let’s face it – pain is part of living, and it’s part of succeeding. Letting go isn’t easy, and freedom isn’t free, but working hard means we get to play hard and the possibilities at the end of this rainbow seem limitless to me at this point. Already, I can feel a major difference in my knee stability; I just have to embrace patience and look at going the distance for a proper recovery, and for that, I will look back on these last few excursions for inspiration and courage.

From the Couch
Dreaming of dirt…

You’ve heard, “life isn’t measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” Well, pain is part of that – trust me, it takes my breath away daily. But so is joy. That said, my mountain bike community has imparted an enormous sum of incredibly joyful, breathtaking moments on my behalf. I am eternally grateful for sharing these past few months with friends and family, both on and off trail, and know that I am drawing motivation and strength from each of these experiences, every day.  I’m coming back –stronger, bolder, faster, and yes, a bit older. In the meantime, keep on pedaling… I’ll see you all on the flip side soon!

-Michelle (AKA: Miss Sunshine)


School Buses, Bikes and Beer

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There are two weekends in every year that are the first to be marked on the family calendar. These special weekends are occupied by the one and only Mountain Bike Oregon, aka MBO. MBO is like a summer camp for adults. It is a full 3 days of riding bikes in Oakridge, OR. All rides are shuttled and guided, coffee and breakfast are ready when you wake up and the endless beer garden opens at 4 pm. What could be better?

All signs point to fun in OROR!
All signs point to fun in OROR!

This year was my 4th year “working” as a guide and August was my 7th MBO. I am pretty sure that it gets better every year. As a guide, a simplified version breaks down something like this:

  1. You get the invite for the year
  2. You rate your love and knowledge for the trails
  3. You anxiously await for the guide master to assign your weekend rides
  4. You rock out another MBO

Guides don’t get paid. We come because we love it. We love the experience of guiding people from all walks of life on some of our favorite trails in the world. There is something special about sharing Oakridge with the world. There isn’t a bad trail on the list and 3 days isn’t even enough time to hit them all. Every MBO weekend is unique. Hell, every ride at MBO is unique. It is a special blend of trail conditions, weather and most importantly, people.

Shuttles for days!

As usual, home base took a little love and care to set up. My husband had already done the bulk of the unpacking when Skyler and I arrived. Home base is getting a little more elaborate each year. We love to set up by the river with plenty of space for our tent, a seating area with our camp kitchen and a riverside hammock space. This year I think that we perfected the triple hammock hangout- complete with a cooler for our LaCroix.

Hauling in all the gear
Hauling in all the gear
LaCroix Cooler
LaCroix Cooler

I had a great line up for the weekend (although I don’t think there is a bad one). I started Friday off with one of my favorite rides – Lost Creek. Lost Creek is what I call an adventure ride. You get a little bit of everything with some hike-a-bike thrown in to make it interesting. I played sweep for the first two-thirds of the ride and enjoyed the company. As I become a better rider, I frequently get pushed to the front of the pack. This weekend was full of fast guides who were willing to hammer, so I took a back seat and chatted it up with a few riders, other guides, and a random rider who stumbled upon us. And if that wasn’t enough, I hit up one of the “bonus” shuttles at the end of the day and went up to Dead Mountain/Flat Creek.

The view from Devil’s Backbone above Dead Mountain trail

On Saturday, I got to do the double – Lawler and Hardesty. This is a double shuttle ride that offers enough root and rock filled descending to make you forget any climbing. I followed it up with a special visit to vender row. Jim had taken out a Guerrilla Gravity the night before and I had to check them out. I was able to snag a demo Megatrail to hit up Dead Mountain for the second day in a row. Oh boy! It was AMAZING! I rocked out the new school flow sections in gravity mode and then switched over to trail mode for the second half. It was pretty unbelievable. It was like I was on a completely different bike. It is such a cool design. I can’t wait to check them out more.

It's not MBO without a hand-dipped bar from Dink's
It’s not MBO without a hand-dipped bar from Dink’s

We wrapped up Saturday by watching the mini-bike races in the beer garden over ice cream bars. The races are a guaranteed good time between the actual race and Randy’s nicknames for the riders.

Entertainment provided
The race track

I wrapped up my weekend with a little Moon Point. Getting to the trail head is a pretty good trek from Oakridge, so I am always happy to get this ride during MBO so I don’t have to worry about pedaling or driving up myself. Everyone is always so worn out and happy by the time Sunday rolls around. The climbs are always a little slower and the rests a little longer. Moon Point is a good way to end the weekend. It offers a screaming fast descent with wonderful views and then finishes on a river trail. Our ride had a few flats (Moon Point frequently does) and we opted to miss out on some river trail. I promise that I didn’t plan that.

Waiting at a road crossing
Waiting at a road crossing
Rope swing under the bridge

This year, like every year, was a blast. I spent the weekend with inspiring people that know how to prioritize the important stuff — enjoying life while it’s here. I hope to see you all next year!

Race Report

24 Hours of Awesome

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The Oregon 24 is a very special race for me. In 2012, when it went by the name of High Cascades 24, it was my very first mountain bike race. I hadn’t been mountain biking for long, but my enthusiastic friends and husband had somehow convinced me that a 6-person team would be a lot of fun. I was a ball of nerves leading to the race and I was was convinced that I would be slow and in everyone’s way.  However, my fears did not come true and by the end of the lap I couldn’t stop smiling. My night lap was a little more of a challenge and the only way I got through it was by staring at the glow sticks adorning my bike and repeating “This is fun. I do this for fun” to myself until I almost started to believe it. At the end of the 24 hours, it felt so good to survive it that I actually did believe it was fun. So much fun that I decided that maybe, just maybe, I could be a mountain bike racer.

The race that started it all.
The race that started it all.

This year was my third Oregon 24. I missed 2013 because after a year of training for the CCP I had filled my sufferfest quota for the year. I believe that this was the best year yet. I raced on the best 5-person women’s team in history! No Apologies! represented with myself, Soso, ZimZam, and guest racers Bridget and Clarinda. We started out by setting up our home base in style. We had two onsite bike mechanics/personal cooks, a crazy friend riding a solo 12 hour, three dogs, a homemade banner made from beer boxes, mood lighting, multiple tents, two double eno hammocks, endless amount of food, fresh brewed coffee, adult beverages, lots of spirit and endless excitement. We were living like kings and we were ready to rock. After an obscene amount of pancakes with various fillings and flare, we made our plan of attack while our mechanic (my husband) dutifully tuned our bikes.

Our master-plan for world domination
Our master-plan for world domination

We were sending out Zimzam for the first shift and each of us would (if up for it) complete two lap shifts. Once Zimzam placed her bike at the startline and meandered to the beginning of the Le Mans start, it was on!

Skittles and ZimZam looking pumped for that run
Skittles and ZimZam looking pumped for that run

It took us a few rounds to really fine tune our off time, but eventually we got it together and heckler’s corner was born. Heckler’s corner was close to camp and allowed us a view of the incoming racers as they made their descent into the transition area. We could clock our riders’ times and heckle all those who passed!

Damn it feels good to be a heckler!
Damn it feels good to be a heckler!

Lap times were impressive and were much faster than we had initially thought. It was clear that we were going to do a lot better than we had planned for. Although there were 4 other 5-person women’s teams, we were blind to our competitions’ progress because of a timing booth hiccup. However, it didn’t matter. We were feeding of each other and pushing hard. We were determined to make this our best 24 hour yet!

Night Lap Fun
Night Lap Fun

My reaction to our better than expected lap times was a mix of excitement and fear. Once we got going, it was clear that this would not be a relaxed attack. We were going to give it our all and get as many laps as possible. Excitement was so high that when Soso went to take over she almost started riding through the transition zone (a big no no with a 30 minute time penalty). By the time I went on my first lap, the sun was setting and we were about to enter the hardest part of the race. After ZimZam’s second round of two laps, Bridget was ready to attack with the dreaded late/early shift: that 1:30 am time period when no respectable person should be on their bike. She handled it well and barely lost time even when her lights failed her on her way back in. She had to desperately creep behind racers to use their light. Later, I heard a racer describing a lap at night where she was convinced she was being stalked by an animal. I only smiled and imagined Bridget creeping behind her grasping for any stray light she could get.

The welcoming glow of camp
The welcoming glow of camp

We were barely gaining time on our laps and rocked it out for the rest of the race. We were stoked to finish with 20 laps! That was about 5 more than we expected (we will have to address our sandbagging problems later). Since the results were still a mess, we had to ask our neighboring team, the Dirt Divas, how many laps they had done. We had just gotten in at 24 hours and 15 minutes and they still had a rider out finishing their 21st lap. Damn! So close! We only hope that the Dirt Divas are willing for a rematch in 2016 and that we can have another full field for 5-person lady teams. All of the teams were really close and we all killed it out there! So, if you are reading this, start getting your team together and meet us out there! We might even share our pancakes and heckles.

ZimZam: Always prepared!
ZimZam: Always prepared!